The Nemesis: Birkenhead’s ‘Devil Ship’

(This article originally appeared in Issue 5 of The Merseysider magazine.)

The Nemesis

The Nemesis

We may have forgotten the Opium Wars, but China hasn’t…

The story of Birkenhead’s Nemesis, the ship that once ruled the China Seas

In 2013 there were two much publicised British trade delegations to China, led by a heavyweight political trio comprising David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson. The purpose of the visits was to bang the drum for British exports and encourage investment in the UK, in the hope of reducing our annual trade deficit with China. This is now a whopping £20 billion a year, our hunger for Chinese-made phones, toys and clothes far outweighing their desire for our own goods and services. In 2015 Osborne went to China again, agreeing a deal for China to build a nuclear reactor in Britain, and soon afterwards the Chinese President himself came to the UK.

The recent trade missions have interesting historical parallels with a British delegation to China in 1793, led by Lord George Macartney. Britain then as now was a tea-loving nation, and China was our main supplier. It demanded payment in silver, and Macartney tried in vain to persuade Emperor Qianlong to purchase British goods instead. The Emperor was unimpressed by Macartney’s wares – which included telescopes, clocks and airguns – and the Englishman’s refusal to bow (or ‘kowtow’) to him in the expected manner didn’t help. The Emperor wrote to George III, ‘As your ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.’

Britain tries to woo the Emperor

Britain tries to woo the Emperor

Over the next few decades there were further unsuccessful attempts to establish a more equal trading relationship with China, before two factors tilted the balance of power in Britain’s favour. The first of these was opium. An increasing number of Chinese were becoming hopelessly addicted to the drug and during the first half of the 19th century our exports of it boomed. The opium was grown in British-ruled India, where huge quantities were refined by the East India Company in Ghazipur. China sought to restrict the trade, and eventually made the importing of opium illegal. Britain notionally accepted this, but sold the drug through middlemen, so that it was in effect smuggled into the country with the full knowledge of the British government.

China made a more determined effort to halt the trade in 1839, when the Emperor put a strong-minded official named Lin Zexu in charge of a new crackdown. He raided the warehouses where opium was stored in Canton, destroyed twenty thousand cases of the drug and deported from China many of those who dealt in it.

Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, was equally determined to protect both an important source of revenue and the country’s international standing. This was where Britain’s second trump card came into play: its military might, which he knew China’s disorganised and poorly equipped forces would be unable to resist. And that military advantage was about to be strengthened by a new secret weapon: Britain’s first ocean-going iron warship, the Birkenhead-built Nemesis.

William Laird and his son John had established their Birkenhead shipyard in 1828. They quickly acquired a reputation for the construction of iron vessels, and one of their best customers was the East India Company. As relations with China deteriorated, the company in 1839 placed orders for Laird to construct an armed flotilla that could be used to defend their interests in the East. Several ships were subsequently made at the yard, but the Nemesis, built in just three months, was the most important.

Sir William Hutcheon Hall

Sir William Hutcheon Hall

The Nemesis was launched in great secrecy, rather like the Birkenhead-built Alabama, which 20 years later would be commissioned by the Confederacy for service in the American Civil War (the Alabama’s dramatic story was told in Issue 2 of The Merseysider, and you can read the article by clicking HERE). The captain was Sir William Hutcheon Hall, an experienced and resourceful naval commander who’d previously served in the Mediterranean and the West Indies. On its way to China the Nemesis, braving tumultuous seas, became the first iron vessel to round the Cape of Good Hope. Meanwhile the First Opium War (1839 – 42) had begun, despite objections at home from – among others – William Gladstone, who declared that ‘a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with a permanent disgrace, I do not know and I have not read of.’

The ship reached China, and first saw action on 7 January 1841, when it was deployed to devastating effect in the Pearl River. Confronted by a Chinese armada of war junks, it destroyed them in a matter of hours. The wooden junks were totally outgunned, the Nemesis’s rocket launcher proving particularly deadly, as her captain later recalled:

‘The very first rocket fired from the Nemesis was seen to enter the large junk against which it was directed…and almost the instant afterwards it blew up with a terrific explosion, launching into eternity every soul on board, and pouring forth its blaze like the mighty rush of fire from a volcano. The instantaneous destruction of the huge body seemed appalling to both sides engaged. The smoke, and flame, and thunder of the explosion, with the broken fragments falling round, and even portions of dissevered bodies scattering as they fell, were enough to strike with awe, if not with fear, the stoutest heart that looked upon it.’

The Nemesis in action

The Nemesis in action

In the months that followed the Nemesis (which the Chinese called a ‘devil ship’) and other British vessels wreaked further havoc along China’s rivers and coasts. Thousands of Chinese died in the conflict; British casualties by comparison were minimal The Chinese tried to negotiate, their representative asking his British counterpart to understand their opposition to opium: ‘Multitudes of our Chinese subjects consume it, wasting their property and destroying their lives. How is it possible for us to refrain from forbidding our people to use it?’  But eventually in 1842 the Emperor was forced to accept the Treaty of Nanking, which opened five Chinese ports to foreign trade and ceded Hong Kong to Britain, which could use it as a base for its trading enterprises in the region. China also had to pay 21 million silver dollars, as reparation for lost trading revenues and the cost to Britain of waging the war.

There was to be a Second Opium War (1856 – 60), followed by what China regarded as another ‘Unequal Treaty’, but Britain continued shipping opium into the country through to the turn of the century. As for the Nemesis, its moment of greatest glory had passed, but it saw further action combatting piracy in Borneo and the Philippines. In one exploit it came to the aid of the British adventurer James Brooke, later immortalised as ‘Lord Jim’ in Joseph Conrad’s novel.

The Opium Wars are largely forgotten in Britain now, and when they are remembered it is usually as one of the British Empire’s more shameful examples of gunboat diplomacy. In China, however, the Wars have a much more significant place in the nation’s collective memory. As Jeremy Paxman put it in the BBC television series Empire, ‘China has never entirely forgotten how a foreign power forced it at gunpoint to allow millions of its citizens to be turned into drug addicts.’ The conflict is studied in Chinese schools as a crucial episode in Chinese history, one which is an especially reprehensible example of Western imperialist aggression. Lin Zexu, who strove to end the opium trade, is considered a national hero.

There is an old Chinese proverb which translates as ‘When a nobleman takes revenge, ten years is not too late’. The English equivalent is ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold’, and it is easy to imagine the Chinese feeling a warm satisfaction at the economic power they now possess. In Britain, they have large stakes in major national assets such as Heathrow Airport and Thames Water. Some of their acquisitions have a peculiar historical resonance. Despite objections from English Heritage, the site of the Royal Dockyard on the Thames in Deptford (where Francis Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, and which was still being used by the navy at the time of the Opium Wars) looks likely to be developed by a Chinese company. And locally, of course, Chinese investment is often mentioned in connection with Peel Holdings’ redevelopment of the Mersey riverbank. A massive International Trade Centre, which would act as a gateway into UK and European markets for Chinese companies, is planned for the West Float area of Birkenhead and Wallasey docks. It was here that the Nemesis, the ship that once played such an important part in bringing China to its knees, was built a century and a half ago. Just a coincidence, of course. Surely…?  

Illustrations ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Thanks to John Murphy for his help with this article.